Creatine is one of the most researched and evidence supported supplements. Some of the reported benefits are hypertrophy (increased muscle mass), improved cognitive function, injury prevention and much more. Let’s dive into the science and practical application of creatine supplementation.
What is creatine? Where can you find it?
Creatine is a small non-proteogenic compound that is found naturally in all muscle cells. Around 95% of all creatine is found in our muscles and 5% in our brain. Creatine assists the phosphocreatine system by increasing the muscle stores of phosphocreatine, which is essential to quickly make ATP (our body’s energy currency). During exercise, when we contract our muscles, ATP is broken down. Using phosphocreatine is the quickest way to provide energy to the working muscles and is crucial to supporting explosive movements lasting no more than 10 seconds.
Creatine can be found in animal products such as red meat, poultry or fish and seafood. However, if you want to maximise your performance, creatine needs to be taken in large amounts which are impossible to meet with food only approach. Therefore, if your aim is to boost your performance you may need to consider supplementing with creatine. Bear in mind that if you are vegetarian or you are following a vegan diet you may have lower levels of creatine in your body and, thus, creatine supplementation may be crucial to reach your performance goals.
What are the reported benefits of creatine supplementation?
Hypertrophy, strength and explosive power!
These are the main reported outcomes of increased levels of muscle creatine. As I said, creatine - more specifically, phosphocreatine - is the immediate explosive source of energy for the working muscle. It is crucial during the first 10 seconds of exercise or when we do explosive jump or weightlifting. What happens is that if we have more phosphocreatine in our body our performance can be more powerful and if we are more powerful we can lift heavier and do more repetitions. What does this mean? we can train for longer and harder, providing a greater training stimulus to the working muscle and therefore, potentially, building more muscle mass and strength.
It has also been reported that as creatine accumulates in the body it draws water into the muscle causing muscle cells swelling and this process can activate specific growth pathways that eventually will increase muscle mass.
Additionally, creatine may enhance carbohydrates loading and reduce the oxidative stress caused by exercise. It is believed that these factors reduce fatigue and allow individuals to train harder for longer, providing a greater training stimulus. Furthermore, having more carbohydrates available to be used - thus, more energy - and reduced oxidative stress may lead to a faster recovery from training.
Improved cognitive functions
Some studies report that creatine may have a positive impact on cognitive processing and recovery from brain injury. In particular, it seems that when there is stress in the brain (i.e lack of sleep, fatigue, injury, etc.) we see the biggest results.
There is evidence supporting the use of creatine supplementation in case of traumatic brain injury (very common in sports such as rugby or american football and competitive fight). In particular, using creatine daily and after injuries may reduce the severity of it and allow subjects to recover quickly.
Some practical aspects
It is recommended to take 3 to 5g/day to increase muscle creatine slowly and then to maintain the increased levels for both males and females. Some studies suggest a loading phase of 20g/day for 5 days to quickly increase muscle creatine, followed by 3 to 5g/day to keep the higher creatine stores. However, there is no need to load unless you need to quickly saturates your creatine stores.
Remember to choose creatine monohydrate as is the cheapest form, the most researched and the most effective. Try to avoid wasting your money on any other form.
Take your creatine supplement with plenty of water and/or a meal to avoid any gut discomforts and dehydration, which are the only side effects reported.
In conclusion, creatine may help in a different situation and may provide benefits for both short and long term performances. If you are a professional athlete and you are considering taking any supplements always speak with a registered sport nutritionist to ensure it is safe.
Francesca is our sports nutritionist who used her sports nutrition expertise while she was a ballet dancer for most of her life. Francesca uses this unique insight to provide clients practical, insightful and lifestyle-driven nutritional advice in both Italian and English. She is a registered associate nutritionist with the AfN. Start your free nutrition assessment to get the best nutritional advice for you.
Antonio et al. (2021). Common questions and misconceptions about creatine supplementation: what does
Dolan, et al. (2018). Beyond muscle: the effects of creatine supplementation on brain creatine, cognitive processing, and traumatic brain injury, European Journal of Sport Science, DOI: 10.1080/17461391.2018.1500644
Kreider et al. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 14:18. DOI 10.1186/s12970-017-0173-z.